Some Meteorite Realities

Nearly all of the photos on this page and in the links below were either sent to me or are ones that I made of rocks that people have sent to me.


Reality Examples Explanation

JUST THE FACTS

Most rocks are not meteorites… …so your rock is probably from Earth. Think of it this way: If you see it driving down the freeway and it has 4 wheels, 2 headlights, and a trunk, it’s probably an automobile, not an alien spacecraft.
The chance of finding a meteorite is exceedingly small. see numbers for the U.S. Even experienced meteorite hunters can go for years between finds.
The chance of finding a meteorite that has just fallen is even smaller. search The Meteoritical Society database Since 1900, the numbers of recognized meteorite “falls” is about 690 for the whole Earth. That’s 6.3 per year. Only 98 of those occurred in the US. That’s less than 1 per year. Even when a meteorite is observed to fall, experienced meteorite hunters may find only a few stones when hunting dawn to dusk for a week.
The chance of finding a lunar or martian meteorite is even smaller. Only about 1 in 1000 meteorites is from the Moon or Mars. I’ve been looking for one for 40 years and I haven’t found one.
If there is no fusion crust, you cannot identify a rock as an achondrite just “by looking.”  achondrites Achondrites look like terrestrial rocks. It requires sophisticated chemical or mineralogical tests to distinguish a rock as an achondrite and to identify just what type of achondrite the rock is.
If you found a rock, it might be a meteorite, but it is definitely not a meteor. meteor You cannot hold a meteor in your hand.
If you saw a meteor and then found a stone, then the stone is not a meteorite. meteor Meteorite fragments land far from where you last saw the meteor and there is no way that observers at a single point on the Earth’s surface are going to find fragments of the meteorite.
Not every rock that falls from the sky is a meteorite. thud Most rocks that fall from the sky are not meteorites.
Not every rock that “looks like” a meteorite is a meteorite. “It looks like a meteorite to me” It is often not possible to determine whether a rock is a meteorite just from its appearance, particularly in a photograph. Achondrites such as meteorites from asteroids, Moon, and Mars can look very much like some types of common Earth rocks.  There’s no polite way to say this – most people who contact me saying, “It looks like a meteorite to me” don’t know what to look for.
Some meteorites do not look like meteorites. Kalahari 009 If someone had walked into my office with this rock, I’d have said that it wasn’t a meteorite.

FUSION CRUST & REGMAGLYPTS

If it does not have a fusion crust, then it’s probably not a meteorite. fusion crustmeteorite fusion crusts look like this Some meteorites do not have obvious fusion crusts, but that’s rare unless the meteorite is from a hot desert and fell thousands of years ago. Usually there is some adhering fusion crust.
“Maybe the fusion crust got worn off.” no fusion crust If she’s wearing a pretty dress and playing a grand piano on a stage with a symphony orchestra behind her, then she’s probably a concert pianist. If she’s jogging down the beach with her dog, then she might be a concert pianist, but probably not. How can you tell?
If it has some kind of rind, coating, or crust, the rind, coating, or crust is probably not a meteorite fusion crust and the rock is n0t a meteorite. rinds, coatings, & crusts There are numerous processes on Earth, such as chemical weathering, that cause rocks to have rinds, coatings, and crusts. Some of these, particularly desert varnish, can look remarkably like a meteorite fusion crust.
If it has a thick rind or coating, then it’s not a meteorite. too thick Fusion crusts are thin because as soon as the exterior of the meteorite melts, the liquid is sloughed off due to of the high velocity of travel of the meteoroid through the atmosphere. The fusion crust does not build up, except perhaps on the trailing side. Meteorite fusion crusts are rarely more that 1-2 mm thick.
If the inside is the same color and shade as the outside, then it’s probably not a meteorite. fusion crust Fusion crusts are usually darker than the interior of a meteorite.

MAGNETIC ATTRACTION AND METAL

If the rock does not rather strongly attract a cheap ceramic magnet, then it is probably not a meteorite. magnetic attraction
metal, iron, & nickel
Don’t use a rare-earth (neodymium) magnet to test for magnetic attraction. A meteorite will attract a cheap ceramic (“refrigerator”) magnet or a compass.
If the rock attracts a cheap magnet but you cannot see shiny metal grains on a sawn or broken surface, then the rock is not a meteorite. ordinary chondrite Meteorites attract magnets because they contain iron-nickel metal. Earth rocks do not contain iron-nickel metal. Many Earth rocks attract magnets, however, because they contain the mineral magnetite.
If the rock contains shiny things that look like metal, but the rock does not attract a magnet, then the shiny things are probably not metal and the rock is not a meteorite. metal, iron, & nickel Some sulfide and oxide minerals look like metal. Micas are often shiny. The presence of shiny specks does not mean metal.
If it does not attract a cheap magnet, then it could still be a meteorite, but it is probably not. metal, iron, & nickel Some of the rarest types of meteorites, the achondrites, do not attract magnets for the same reason that most Earth rocks do not attract magnets – they do not contain magnetite of iron-nickel metal. But, achondrites are rare. Only 2.5% of the ~1500 stony meteorites that have been found in the U.S. are achondrites, and many of them do, in fact, contain metal and attract a magnet.
If the “rock” looks metallic but does not strongly attract a cheap magnet, the it’s not a meteorite. shiny We’ve been sent chunks of silicon, aluminum, ferromanganese, chromium, and other industrial metals. All metal that you can see in a meteorite will attract a magnet.
If it is metallic and attracts a magnet, then it might be an iron meteorite, but it is probably not. man-made metal things Humans have been making and losing metal things for thousands of years. If it looks like metal and attracts a magnet, then you have to have it analyzed for iron, nickel, manganese, and chromium to determine whether it’s man-made or an iron meteorite. If it is metallic but does not attract a magnet, then it is not a meteorite.
If it looks metallic and you can bend it or break it, then it’s not a meteorite.   Iron meteorites do not break, unless they are badly rusted.
If your metal detector says that the rock contains nickel, then it’s lying. no metal detectors Metal detectors are not that smart. They might be able to tell nickels from pennies, but they can’t tell if iron metal contains enough nickel metal to be a meteorite.

BULK PROPERTIES AND SHAPE

If it is “heavy for its size,” then it might be a meteorite, but it’s probably not. density & specific gravity The commonest kind of meteorite, the ordinary chondrites, contain iron-nickel metal. The metal makes them denser than most Earth rocks. Some Earth rocks, however, are denser than any stony meteorite. Most such “heavy for its size” Earth rocks that people find are iron oxide concretions.
If it is not heavy for its size, then it might be meteorite, but it’s probably not. density & specific gravity Some rare meteorites, the achondrites, which do not contain metal, have low densities like common Earth rocks. Density is not all that useful for distinguishing meteorites from meteorwrongs.
If it consists of hematite or magnetite, then it’s not a meteorite. concretions Iron-oxide nodules or concretions are the most common kind of meteorwrong sent to us. Highly weathered meteorites may contain some hematite, magnetite, and maghemite. Do a streak test.
If it is a big rock, then it’s not a meteorite. too big Most stony meteorites are smaller than people think they are. If you like statistics, see this. Also, see this for the masses of the >70 individual stones that have been found from the recent fall of the Sutter’s Mill meteorite in California. Iron meteorites can be big, however: Willamette | XinJiang | Campo del Cielo | Hoba
If it is big and it does not have regmaglypts, then it’s probably not a meteorite. regmaglypts Not all meteorites have regmaglypts but big ones usually do. Not all dimples are regmaglypts, however. An ordinary chondrite can easily be smashed with a hammer.
If the rock is “really hard,” then it’s probably not a meteorite. quartz Because meteorites don’t contain quartz (the hardest common terrestrial mineral), they’re not all that hard.
If it is spherical or circular, then it’s probably not a meteorite. spheres There are processes on Earth that lead to spherical rocks (spheroidal weathering, tumbling and abrasion in water). These processes don’t occur where most meteorites come from. Here is a photo of the only exception of which I’m aware: Canyon Diablo spherules
If it is square, rectangular, or has flat sides or parallel sides, then it’s probably not a meteorite. too flat
too rectangular
As above, flat sides and square corners are not consistent with an object that has come through the atmosphere.
If it is highly oblate (flat and thin), then it’s not a meteorite. too oblate Except for Frisbees and flying saucers, oblate objects are not all that aerodynamically stable and would be break apart during the descent through the atmosphere.
If it is long and thin, then it’s not a meteorite long-thin A rock or piece of metal with a high aspect ratio (length-to-width) is not aerodynamically stable and would break apart in the atmosphere.
If it is hollow, then it’s not a meteorite. hollow Meteorites are not hollow.
If it is glass, glassy, or has conchoidal fractures, then it’s not a meteorite. glass Some meteorites contain some glass, but none are solid glass
If it looks like a potato or some other vegetable, then it’s not a meteorite. potato rock What more can I say.
If it looks like a brain, then it’s not a meteorite. brain It’s just a terrestrial sedimentary rock.
If it is stony (not iron) and has a really goofy shape, then it’s not a meteorite. goofy Meteorites don’t look like this.
If you found a rock that was hot to touch or appears to have been subjected to “extreme heat,” then it’s not a meteorite. hot rock Meteorites do not land “hot.”
If it is radioactive, then it’s not a meteorite. radioactive Most meteorites are less radioactive than are most Earth rocks. The only meteorite of which I am aware to actually register on a Geiger counter is lunar meteorite Sayh al Uhaymir 169, which has 600-700 times the abundances of thorium and uranium than an ordinary chondrite. 

EXTERIOR

If it is stony (not an iron) and has a rough exterior, then it’s probably not a meteorite. rough For small meteoroids, 90% of the mass is lost to ablation as they comes through the Earth’s atmosphere. Edges, “corners,” rough surfaces, and any other protuberances are the first parts to ablate away. Put an ice cube in water and wait for 90% to melt. The “cube” that’s left will have no edges or points. It’s like that with meteorites.
If it is angular, with sharp edges or points and no smooth sides, then it’s probably not a meteorite. angles and edges For small meteoroids, 90% of the mass is lost to ablation as they comes through the Earth’s atmosphere. Edges, “corners,” rough surfaces, and any other protuberances are the first parts to ablate away. Put an ice cube in water and wait for 90% to melt. The “cube” that’s left will have no edges or points. It’s like that with meteorites.
If it is stony (not iron) and has protuberances, then it’s probably not a meteorite. protuberances For small meteoroids, 90% of the mass is lost to ablation as they comes through the Earth’s atmosphere. Edges, “corners,” rough surfaces, and any other protuberances are the first parts to ablate away. Put an ice cube in water and wait for 90% to melt. The “cube” that’s left will have no edges or points. It’s like that with meteorites.
If it has “craters” on the surface, they are not impact craters and the rock is not a meteorite. asteroids and meteoroids Asteroids have craters, meteorites do not. The surface material ablates away as the meteorite comes through the atmosphere. See next.
If it “looks burned,” it’s probably not a meteorite. burned Meteorites don’t burn. Meteorites are not burned. The outside has melted, but they haven’t burned and they don’t “look burned.”
If it has swirls, radiating features, or concentric features, then it’s not a meteorite. swirls, radiating features, concentric rings Although there may be processes in space that can lead to such rocks, we haven’t seen meteorites like this yet.
If it has layers, laminations, or any kind of planar or parallel linear features, then it is definitely not a meteorite. layers and stripes objects (asteroids) too small to have any appreciable gravity. If there is no gravity, then there is no way to form layers. Here is the only exception I know about, and it’s a terrestrial weathering effect.<td)
If it has veins, particularly ones that stick out or appear to be planar, then it is not a meteorite. veins Melt veins are seen in some meteorites, but they are never linear. Rarely, there might be veins of impact melt (see NWA 482 and Harper Dry Lake 036). Some others have veins of metal. Most of the veins in these photos, however, are fractures that have filled with quartz. Quartz-filled fractures are common in Earth rocks but are not seen in meteorites.
If rock or mineral grains stand out from the matrix or have been plucked out leaving a cavity, then it’s probably not a meteorite. innies & outies In many terrestrial sedimentary rocks, the clasts are often harder than the matrix. Sometimes they pop out of the rock. That doesn’t happen much in meteorites.
If it has fractures or filled fractures, then it is probably not a meteorite. fractures If a meteoroid is fractured, then it will break apart along the fractures as it passes through the atmosphere. Ordinary chondrites that have been on or in the Earth a long time, will self fracture as they metal rusts, but they will look rusty and not like the rocks in the photos. (See story and photo of the Lake House chondrite, for example.)
If it is whitish on the outside, then it’s not a meteorite. too white Most meteorites are shades of grays and browns; some may be reddish on the outside.
If there is writing or a picture on it, then it’s not a meteorite. picture Meteorites do not fall out of the sky with writing or pictures on them. If you have of find a rock with writing or pictures, then it is probably not a meteorite.

INTERIOR

If it has a lot of vesicles (gas bubbles, holes) in it, then it’s not a meteorite. vesicles & amygdules
more vesicles
Very few stony meteorites have vesicles or holes. In those that do, the holes are sparse and small.  Vesicles require gas and that the rock was once molten. Most meteorites were never molten. Iron meteorites sometimes have holes, however.
If it is glassy and vesicular, then it’s not a meteorite. glassy & vesicular = slag It’s probably a piece of slag, particularly if it attracts a magnet or has flow features on one surface.
If it contains lots of amygdules, then it’s probably not a meteorite. vesicles & amygdules
more amygdules
Some hot-desert meteorites have terrestrial material filling rare vesicles.
If it is stony and has big holes in it, then it’s not a meteorite. holes Iron meteorites can have holes.
If it contains elongated minerals or clasts, then it is probably not a meteorite. needles It is rare for the aspect ratio of a clast or large mineral in a meteorite to exceed 3-to-1.
If it has clasts or minerals grains with square, rectangular, or parallelogram shapes, then it’s probably not a meteorite. geometric Geometric shapes happen in terrestrial rocks, but the minerals that cause this are rare in meteorites.
If it contains round things, the round things are not necessarily chondrules. round things Lots of Earth rocks contain round things.
If it contains obvious quartz, then it’s not a meteorite. quartz Quartz is the only common mineral that will easily scratch glass. Try to scratch glass with a sharp edge of the rock. If it makes a deep scratch, it’s not a meteorite.
If it looks metallic and is shiny on the outside, then it is not a meteorite. shiny Some sulfide minerals look metallic and some non-ferrous metals are shiny.
If it contains fossils, then it’s not a meteorite. fossils If a rock contains fossils, then it is not a meteorite. Fossils occur in Earth rocks because there is life on Earth. Thus far, we do not have evidence of life on any of the places where meteorites come from, so if it has fossils, it’s an Earth rock. If we ever find a meteorite that contain fossil life forms, that would be a big deal, but the burden of proof would be very heavy.
If it is reddish, violet, blue, green, yellow, or orange particularly on the inside, then it’s probably not a meteorite. too red | too green | too colorful Most meteorites are shades of grays and browns; some may be reddish on the outside.
Just because it “looks like” one of the breccias on my lunar meteorites site does not mean that it’s a meteorite or a Moon rock. impact breccia and rocks that are not impact breccias but look something like impact breccias There are a number of geologic processes on Earth that lead to rocks that resemble impact breccias.

WHERE DID YOU FIND IT?

If it does not look like other rocks in the vicinity, then it might be a meteorite, but it’s probably not. rocks move Glaciers, moving water and wind, and (most importantly) humans have moved, dropped, and placed a lot of unusual rocks far from where they came from.
If you found it on a beach, then it’s not a meteorite. beach I am aware of only one meteorite, Southampton (pallasite), that was found on a beach. If a stony meteorite landed in the water and later washed up on a beach it would have lost its fusion crust as a result of abrasion by wave action. If it were an ordinary chondrite, it would likely have broken apart from rusting of the iron metal. If it survived as a rock, it would be all but impossible to identify as a meteorite just “by looking.” It would not look at all special, except maybe for some rusty spots.  But, who knows?  Nobody has ever found and recognized one!
If you found it in a stream bed, along a river, or any other place where there are lots of rocks, then it’s almost certainly not a meteorite. stream With 2 exceptions that occur to me, successful meteorite hunters search for meteorites in places where there are not a lot of rocks. If you want to find your car easily, park it in an empty parking lot.
If you found it near a road or railroad track, then it’s not a meteorite. railroad It may have fallen off a train or truck.
If it is in a conspicuous place, then it’s not a meteorite. conspicuous Unless it’s in a museum
If you found a lot of them in one place, then they are not a meteorites. too many 1
too many 2
Meteorites break apart in the atmosphere 10 miles or more above the Earth’s surface. The fragments are spread out over miles (strewn field). The chances that 2 or more land within seeing distance are very small.
If you found a rock in a “crater,” then it’s not a meteorite. not a crater There are several geologic (karst, glacial kettle), as well as anthropogenic (man-made), processes that make circular depressions in the ground. Meteorites hit the ground at terminal velocity, about 200-400 miles per hour. That’s not fast enough to make a crater unless the rock is large (>meter size? I really don’t know).
If it has been in your family for years, it’s probably not a meteorite. Grandpa’s old rock But then…

SELLING & BUYING METEORITES

Many-to-most rocks sold over the Internet as meteorites really are meteorites; some are not. slag There are many reputable meteorite dealers that sell real meteorites on the Internet. I have bought several meteorite specimens from such dealers. However, there are foolish or devious people who try to sell backyard rocks as meteorites. Most rocks offered on e-bay for prices >$10,000 are not really meteorites. Sometimes, cheap meteorwrongs are offered for sale, however.
Many-to-most rocks sold over the Internet as meteorites really are meteorites; some are not. selling slag Since 2004 I have received thousands of e-mails and tens of thousands of photographs (really) from a disturbed man in Sweden who claims that the “rocks” in the photos are “ultra extreme amazing !!!” lunar meteorites. Here are a few of the photos. All the stuff in the photos is slag.
Advertisements for alleged meteorites that are filled with meaningless, pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo and absurdly high prices are usually selling just rocks. caveat emptor Some people just don’t have enough real work to do.
If you find a real meteorite, it isn’t worth as much ($) as you think or wish. cheap There are several factors that affect the price of a meteorite: rarity of the type of meteorite, how big or small it is, intrinsic attractiveness, whether it’s a fall or a find, and whether there is a good story to go with it.

FINAL WORDS

Meteorological is not the same as meteoritical. meteorological Both words involve atmospheric phenomenon.
In English, there is only one way to spell meteorite. I have received e-mails with meteorite spelled many different ways: météorite, mateorite, mateorito, meadorite, meatioright, meator, meatorite, medeiorite, medeorite, mederite, mederoite, mediroit, medorite, medrolite, meeorite, meetyouwrite, mentor, meorite, meoteorite, meotorite, meroite, mereorite, merteorite, met5eorite, mete, meteeor, meteiorrite, meteirite, metemorite, météo, meteoiarte, meteoite, meteorait, meteorete, meteori, meteoric, meteorid, meteoride, meteorie, meteoriet, meteorilite, meteoriote, meteorit, météorite, meteorith, meteorito, meteoritote, meteoritre, meteoritt, meteoritte, meteoro, meteorolite, meteorprite, meteortie, meteory, meteoryt, meteotite, meteprite, meter, meteright, meteriod, meteriorite, meteriot, meteriote, meterite, metermortie, meteroide, meteroit, meteroite, meteror, meterorite, meterote, meteroyty, meterrite, meterrite, metetro, meteurite, metheorite, metior, metiorit metiorite, metoerite, metor, metoor, metorie, metorit, metorite, metortie, metoroite, metreot, metriote, métrite, metro, metroite, metrorite, metterrite, meturate, metworite, maturate, miderorite, miteorete, miteorite, moteor, motoit, mrtrorite, & mteorite
Suggested by Martin (an expert): “If an expert tells you that your rock is not meteorite, then: Believe him!” Or, seek the advice of another expert. But be aware – all meteorite experts I know are so deluged with questions by wannabe meteorite finders that mOST likely won’t reply. I get contacted about 16 times a day. So, I don’t have time to chat with you and I have no interest in arguing with you if you do not agree with my free opinions. I’m retired. If you don’t like my response, contact someone else.
Corollary: If an “expert” tells you that your rock IS a meteorite, then it’s probably not. Expert says: “Yup, that a meteorite for sure.” But, many “experts” at local colleges, universities, and museums are experts on something else.
A critic of an earlier version of this page said, “Your definitions of meteorites are not always the same as other Scientists or Geologists, someone in your profession is Wrong!!!!!” True, in part. On the other hand, Winston Churchill is alleged to have said (about something completely different), “There are a terrible lot of lies going around the world, and the worst of it is half of them are true.” Compromise: I admit that all of these statements are untrue some of the time. Also, these aren’t “definitions;” they are just guidelines.